Napoli’s vacant lead can be Amin Younes’ perfect audition for Ancelotti’s casting call up front

Depth is of paramount importance to any title contender looking to take the next step with their project and propel themself into the upper echelons of football’s best. A simple inventory check of their reserves paints a very clear picture of which clubs have a strong 11-13 and who has strength in numbers up and down the teamsheet.

Believe it or not, but you can tell an awful lot about what a club’s objectives are and where they are headed based on the quality of their 14th, 15th and 16th player. For instance, Juventus, Napoli’s main nemesis, have a star-studded XI, but a stocked second team that is quite capable of competing at a high level.

On matchday 1 vs Parma, the Bianconeri‘s bench included the following notables: Gianluigi Buffon, Emre Can, Mario Mandzukic, Matthijs de Ligt, Paulo Dybala, Adrien Rabiot, Juan Cuadrado, Rodrigo Bentacur and Federico Bernardeschi. This list excludes Aaron Ramsey who, although injured, will likely be one of the first names summoned, lending even more credence to a Maurizio Sarri squad equipped to navigate a long, grueling season and last in the end.

So, if Carlo Ancelotti and Napoli‘s aim is to knock Juventus from off their perch and dethrone them as Serie A champions this season, then it will take all hands on deck and elevated performances from those fringe players with something to prove, including Amin Younes.  Continue reading

Manchester United aren’t doing enough to sell wantaway star Paul Pogba

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And so with just over a month to go until the transfer window closes firmly shut Manchester United still have Paul Pogba on their books, and the question has to be why?

Pogba has seemingly always had that link with United starting off his early career at the club only to be sold onto Juventus and then brought back by Jose Mourinho for a reported £80m. Pogba’s career simply has not taken off at United despite the odd game of brilliance, he has never brought consistency to his game, quite simply Pogba and United do not fit.

And yet when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over from the sacked Jose Mourinho in December it really did seem like a connection had been made and that Pogba would be able to stay with the club. His performances completely turned around and he started to become the star of the team that everyone had hoped for when he first signed. Alas that ended when United started losing again and then Solskjaer started criticising and that was it, Pogba, the professional reverted back into his woe is me shell.

The biggest surprise is that United have not sold him yet. Why is this? Even Pogba wants to leave. One reason is probably that they want their money back at least on a player that cost a kings ransom. That isn’t happening and United will have to accept that Pogba’s value has gone down alongside his poor form, and he is a year older, all that combined means that Juventus who will probably take him back will not want to shell out more than 60m for his services. Juventus themselves are locked in talks with Ajax wonderkid Matthjis de Ligt and he could cost the old lady upwards of 70m, and so budgets are budgets, and they won’t be able to afford to pay too much for Pogba.

The hype surrounding Pogba is a strange one then, what is it that attracts big clubs to him? One answer could be his pace, his strength and his confidence- he lights up a team and the dressing room. But his technical skill for a player that commands such huge transfer fees and attention is a quite shocking.

The solution is simple Pogba needs to be sold, and if United want to talk to him and try to convince him to stay with the club they would be taking a step backwards. United are a proud club and if one of your players doesn’t want to play for you you need to act quickly and sell. For now it feels that United are dragging their feet over this- accept the price cut and move on.

How Paratici rejuvenated Juventus’ back four

Juventus sporting director Fabio Paratici has wasted no time this summer, securing Adrien Rabiot and Aaron Ramsey on bosmans, and has revolutionized the bianconeri’s back four for years to come. Last week, it was reported that the Italian champions beat PSG and Barcelona to Ajax captain Matthijs de Ligt. The highly rated 19-year-old wasn’t the only defender Juventus signed, as Paratici also completed deals for Genoa’s Cristian Romero and Sassuolo’s Merih Demiral. Since 2011, Juventus’ success has largely been built on their resolute backline and the famous BBC, yet, recently, with their key defenders on the wrong side of thirty, they’ve shown signs of wear and tear.

Last season, Leonardo Bonucci returned to the club after a poor year with Milan, and has looked a shade of his former self, making routine errors. Recently, it’s been reported that Bonucci may be on his way to PSG, if the sides can agree on a fee. Chiellini, on the other hand, has been solid as ever, but has been regularly sidelined with recurring injuries. As a result, Juve’s 70 million euro swoop for de Ligt is a no-brainer. The Dutch international is arguably the world’s most talented young centre-back, and will immediately establish himself as a leader in Turin. Alongside the veteran presence of Chiellini, expect the Dutchman to take his game to the next level.

Other than de Ligt, Paratici turned to three Serie A talents to rejuvenate the defence: Demiral, Romero and Roma’s Luca Pellegrini. Demiral has already asserted himself as a regular with the Turkish national team and can even feature at right back. At just 15 million euros, the former Fenerbahçe youth product may prove to be the bargain of the summer.

Romero, by contrast, will likely remain on loan at Genoa for another season and is one for the future. His 30 million euro price-tag shows that Paratici holds him in high-esteem, but another season with I Grifoni will allow him to keep growing.

Outside of central defence, Paratici took a risk and swapped Leonardo Spinazzola for Pellegrini and just under 10 million euros. Throughout his loan spell with Cagliari this past season, Pellegrini demonstrated immense upside, registering two assists in 23 appearances.

Spinazzola has struggled with injuries in the past but appears to have put his fitness concerns behind him. In fact, he was arguably the best player on the pitch in Juventus’ comeback win against Atletico Madrid. Despite this, Paratici went ahead with the swap. While Spinazzola is more ready now, the former Roma defender arguably has a higher ceiling, but will need playing time to grow. With Alex Sandro struggling for form, expect the 20-year-old to be given ample opportunities.

Juventus’ defence has long been their strong suit, but this past season’s shakiness was undoubtedly a rude awakening for their top brass. Paratici has since acted proactively, securing four talents within two weeks, all of which can be elite in the right environment. While the bianconeri’s revolutionized backline may not be the BBC of old, they have all the potential in the world to write their own story, and for that, Paratici must me commended.

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Barcelona need De Jong influence in De Ligt deal

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La Liga champions FC Barcelona are becoming increasingly concerned that their deal for Ajax skipper Matthijs De Ligt has derailed, due to interest from rival clubs in the teenage defender.

De Ligt enjoyed a fine season at the heart of the Dutch side’s defence, as they secured the domestic double, and reached the Champions League semi final stage.

However he has been clear in his preference to move on from the Johan Cruyff Arena this summer, with a queue of top sides looking to gain an edge in the race to sign him.

Continue reading

Top La Liga Strikers in 2018/19: Luis Suarez

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Remembered for his time with Ajax and Liverpool, Luis Suarez is now known as a veteran of Barcelona after completing his 5th season with the club and as a result he was one of the finest strikers in La Liga this past season.

In winning the league title Suarez has picked up his 13th major title with Barcelona and his switch from Liverpool was certainly a good one for the Uruguayan. He instantly found a chemistry with both Neymar and Lionel Messi and continued that this year with Messi even if at times Suarez has not had his strongest season.

But at the end of the day Suarez still managed 21 goals in La Liga coming joint 2nd with Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema and only beaten by Messi. Yet because of picking up 5 yellow cards Suarez dropped a few points and as a result finished 3rd in European Fantasy League rankings for La Liga strikers.

Along with his goals Suarez also assisted in 6 further goals and finished on a total of 93 points for the season. His value this season was 15m.

Suarez’s highlight of the 2018/19 season came in the biggest game in Spain if not world football when Barcelona at home played Real Madrid in El Clasico. The game ended up being one sided in which Barca ran out 5-1 winners with Suarez scoring a magical hat trick, he finished with 13 points, which could have been more but he picked up a yellow card in the game.

The beginning of the La Liga campaign was in fact a slow one for the striker and apart from picking up 10 points when he scored 2 goals and made an assist in Barcelona’s emphatic 8-2 victory over Huesca Suarez was really struggling to pick up the points. Take out the Huesca game and in his first 7 games of the season the 32 year old player picked up seven points. It was all tit for tat and there was no consistency to his game. This form inevitably brought on pressure from the media and the fans who thought that Suarez was finished as a Barcelona player. But as the season went on he had points to prove and prove he did.

His goal and assist in a tricky match against Sevilla which ended up in a 4-2 victory for Barcelona was vital. There was also his dominance in the Eibar victory which ended 3-0 with Suarez grabbing 2 goals and setting up the third to earn 9 points.

Towards the end of the season only Atletico Madrid had any chance of catching Barcelona for the league after Real Madrid’s chaotic season and Barcelona beat them 2-0 which effectively ended the league title that day- again Suarez was on hand to get one of the goals.

In all Suarez had a very good season, perhaps not his best but still good enough to star in a team that won the league with what seemed like ease. The one minus against him will be the 15 games where he failed to score and he also had a very quiet time at the turn of the year. But Suarez remained with enough quality to at least convince Barcelona to retain him for a 6th season.

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Is Ajax’s Matthijs de Ligt really worth €400,000 a week?

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Death and taxes are two things certain in this life, the other is Ajax selling their best players before they have got full use of them. Frankie de Jong is already a Barcelona player and it seems almost certain that Ajax defender Matthijs de Ligt will be leaving in the summer.

French champions PSG have emerged as the forerunners to buy the player and they have reportedly made an offer of around €60m euros to Ajax with future add on’s for the young prospect. It doesn’t stop there though and PSG have reportedly offered de Ligt wages of 400,000 euros a week. This is a stunning amount and PSG obviously mean business if this is indeed true. It seems like it is as when the news broke PSG did not rush to deny it.

But let’s take a few steps back here and ask is de Ligt a player that most of us had not heard of at the beginning of the season worth so much?

True Ajax have just won the Dutch league and followed that up with the cup and it is true that de Ligt has had a good season. With Ajax in the league he was part of a defence that conceded 29 goals all season and kept 15 clean sheets.

But what has really turned PSG and other European superpowers onto the 19 year old was his performances in the Champions League. His team knocked out Real Madrid who had won the competition for 3 years running and then ended Cristiano Ronaldo’s dream by dumping out Juventus. However they couldn’t overcome a passionate Tottenham side who beat them on the away goal rule. Therein lies a problem.

And the problem is a normal one- de Ligt for all his greatness is still a teenager and is still sometimes naïve. He has a tendency to make basic errors- that doesn’t mean he isn’t a good defender, but one should question the money that PSG want to offer Ajax for a player who hasn’t won anything out of the Dutch league and is still so young.

Of course PSG’s answer would be that he will only get better- but surely that is the risk at stake. True everything does point to de Ligt having a fantastic future in football. He is currently captain of Ajax, which in itself is stunning given his age and he is now a regular starter for the Netherlands. And yet it could still not work out as it should for the player.

PSG have laid down a marker and that amount of wages per week has made de Ligt sit up and think. Think because it is fairly obvious that he has Barcelona or Real Madrid more on his mind than PSG. But will he take the money? Both Barca and Madrid one would feel are unlikely to offer de Ligt that type of money at 19- but then again in the world of football who really knows?

 

 

 

Summer Shopping: Serie A’s Top Five Targets

With the year winding down to a close, most Serie A sides already have one eye on the summer transfer window. While this past season may not have gone to plan for most of Serie A’s elite, a majority of them are just a couple of additions away from being serious competitors. Here’s one player for each of the league’s top five. For brevity, Atalanta and Lazio among others have been excluded.

1) Juventus: Tanguy NDombele (Lyon)

After yet another European failure, it’s time Juventus address their midfield issues once and for all. Lyon’s Tanguy NDombele is among world football’s hottest prospects in the middle of the park, and has demonstrated he’s ready to play for a bigger club. Just this season, NDombele went head-to-head with both Barcelona and Manchester City’s deep midfield ranks, and did not look one bit out of place.

Just recently, Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas came out and said he’d willingly sell NDombele to Juventus ahead of other suitors, provided “his friend” Andrea Agnelli pays up. The Frenchman would slot in seamlessly alongside Ramsey and Pjanic, however, it remains to be seen if NDombele is a concrete target for Juventus.

2) Napoli: Donny van de Beek (Ajax) 

The Ajax midfielder may not get as much credit as his fellow compatriots Frenkie de Jong, and Matthijs de Ligt, but he’s proven to be just as important for them between the lines. van de Beek burst onto the scene this season, and emerged as a essential aspect to Erik ten Hag’s tactical schemes, roaming between the opposition’s lines at will, and getting himself into dangerous scoring positions. Outside of his crucial goals against Juventus and Tottenham, van de Beek is good with the ball at his feet like most Ajax graduates, and would slot in wonderfully into Napoli’s midfield.

Since Hamsik’s departure, the partenopei have lacked a driving force in the midfield, and van de Beek could prove to be exactly what’s needed. Alongside Fabian Ruiz, expect the Dutchman to wreck havoc. Napoli could also use a fullback, but that goes without saying.

3) Inter: Timothy Castagne (Atalanta)

Inter are one of the most well-rounded outfits in Serie A outside of Napoli and Juventus, and don’t require much tweaking this summer. With Mauro Icardi and Lautaro Martinez up top, and the trio of de Vrij, Skriniar and Godin at the back, Inter are simply lacking a manager to put it all together. Should Antonio Conte arrive as it’s being reported, he will undoubtedly field a back three, with his traditional wing-backs in a 3-5-2 setup.

With both the back-line and strike partnership more or less sorted as well as the midfield, Inter could use another wingback as they are unlikely to redeem Vrsaljko or Cedric. Here’s where Atalanta’s Timothy Castagne comes in. The Dutchman has been a key element to Gasperini’s side over the years as a wing-back, and is a traditional Conte player. Castagne’s play is eerily reminiscent of a prime Stephan Lichtsteiner, however, blessed with more end-product. As a result, I expect him to become a priority for Marotta, whether or not Conte arrives.

4) Roma: Juan Musso (Udinese)

This past summer Roma tried replacing Alisson with Swedish international Robin Olsen, and Serie A journeyman Antonio Mirante. Neither have proven to be a long-term solution to the departed Brazilian, leaving the giallorossi without a reliable number one going into next season. Luckily, there are a number of up and coming shot-stoppers in Serie A that Roma could turn to.

While Alessio Cragno and Alfred Gomis are interesting options, Roma should look no further than Udinese’s Juan Musso. The Argentine has gone from strength to strength this season, and has made the number one spot his own in Friuli with a string of impressive performances. In the past, Roma have shown a propensity to take a risk on goalkeepers on the cusp, and should do the same with Musso. They won’t regret it.

5) Milan: Hakim Ziyech (Ajax) 

Where to begin with Milan? The rossoneri could use a creative midfielder, a left winger and arguably another centre back. Ajax’s Ziyech checks off two of these boxes and should be made a priority in Milanello. With just a 25 million euro release clause, Ziyech is both cost-effective, and has the potential to become a world class player in the near future.

As he’s typically deployed as a ball dominating, out-and-out winger, his signing would take off some of the creative burden from the likes of Suso, Paqueta, and would even allow Calhanoglu to feature centrally more regularly. Not to mention, Ziyech has tormented elite opposition this season, be it in the Champions League or in the Eredivisie. Milan shouldn’t say no to his teammate David Neres either if Ziyech isn’t feasible.

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Ajax take a step back to go forward and are on the verge of Champions League final

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Ajax beat Tottenham in London in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final to claim a vital away goal and a fantastic win.

To be fair it isn’t often that we have witnessed both teams get this far in the competition. Indeed for Tottenham it is the first since the rebranding of the competitions name in 1992/93 and their first since 1962.

For Ajax the last time the team were this good was in 1996 when they reached their second Champions League final in a row only to lose on penalties against Juventus. But rewind a year before when Ajax won the competition and beat the great Milan side of the 90s in the process.

That Ajax side were remembered for the youths that came through the side and stunned European football. Players such as Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids and Jari Litmanen just to name a few. All went on to play for the biggest sides in Europe- but that night will always remain the most special for the players.

The 1995 win was also the first for the club since 1973 when they won 3 European Cups in a row between 1971-73, headed by the great Johan Cruyff. There has always been quality and a sense of total football with Ajax since the 70s but since the early 2000s the club have suffered.

Youngsters were not coming through as frequently and when, on rare occasions, they did they would be sold and moved on when they were clearly too young. A new generation did threaten a couple of years ago when Ajax reached the Europa League final against Manchester United, but the Dutch side were simply not ready for Jose Mourinho’s side at that point.

This season has been unbelievable for them. They look on course to win the Dutch league and have been phenomenal in the Champions League. Not only did they end Real Madrid’s 3 year hold on the competition they destroyed them in their own back yard winning 4-1.

Next up was Juventus and not just any old Juventus, but the club that had bought Ronaldo from Madrid in order to win their first Champions League since 1996. But Ajax stayed professional throughout and won 3-2 over 2 legs, impressively beating Juventus in Italy.

In some ways this match up with Tottenham was fascinating. Ajax had rarely faced a stronger Tottenham side but Tottenham had never faced such a skilful and peaceful Ajax team. The way Ajax started the game in Tottenham’s new stadium was incredible- one was reminded of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona from 2011.

It is a joy to behold to see how strong Ajax have become- the 2nd leg is still up for grabs of course but it does look like Ajax have one foot in the final. The likes of Matthijs De Ligt, Donny van de Beek,- who scored against Tottenham, Frenkie de Jong and Hakim Ziyech have been a revelation and a shot in the arm for European football.

Can Ajax recall teams of the past and make it to the final and possibly even win it- it’s not such a pipedream like it was at the beginning of the year. It feels like a reality and it is clear that Ajax mean business.

De Ligt and a summer of change at Barcelona

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After capturing the mercurial talent of Frenkie De Jong, it appears that Barcelona are in pole position to sign his current Ajax team-mate, Matthijs De Ligt.

The 19-year-old centre-back is wanted by all of Europe’s top clubs but has allegedly told those close to him that he ‘only wants Barcelona.’

That’s a real coup for the Catalans, who see De Ligt as a future captain of the club and a player who’ll be a mainstay in their defence for the next decade. Continue reading

Dybala Set to Start Against Ajax

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With Mario Mandzukic out injured, reports suggest that Paulo Dybala could get the start alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Federico Bernardeschi. Until now, la Joya has struggled to impose himself on games, and has looked an awkward fit in Allegri’s various formations this season.

Instructed to drop deep to receive the ball, Dybala has often been on the periphery of games, and has largely struggled to impact the proceedings from an unfamiliar deeper role. With the score tied at one all, and going back to the Juventus Stadium, the return leg against Ajax is a great opportunity for Dybala to make a statement, and prove doubters wrong. Recently, there’s been reports linking Dybala with a move away due to his recent struggles; something that he’ll be eager to quash as soon as possible.

Against Ajax, Allegri is reportedly fielding Dybala as the out-and-out striker, a position he’s rarely played this season. When given the opportunity to play closer to the goal, the Argentine international has not disappointed, scoring six goals in ten games. Going up against Matthjis de Ligt won’t be easy, but if anyone has the skill-set to drag him out of position, it’s Dybala. In doing so, the former Palermo man could open up spaces for Ronaldo to attack. In the first leg, de Ligt was a rock at the back, and marshalled Mandzukic wonderfully when necessary.

Moreover, with Emre Can returning, and acting as the shield for the back four, Miralem Pjanic will be given the license to get forward; a luxury he was not afforded in the first leg. With the Bosnian international getting forward to dictate play, Dybala won’t be forced to drop as deep as he normally does, and he’ll be able to make the most of his ability in and around the eighteen-yard box.

When Pjanic is allowed to play in a more advanced role, the team plays noticeably better, as evidenced in the return leg against Atletico Madrid. Against Ajax, expect it to be no different as the former Roma man will look to get forward with more regularity. The importance of Can’s return cannot be emphasized enough, and it will have a massive impact on the team, as well as Dybala’s game as a whole. Rather than being forced to act as the side’s creator, Dybala could focus on hurting Ajax in the final phase.

Mandzukic’s absence, by contrast, will be felt, however, given his recent form it may be for the best. While Mandzukic sacrifices himself for the team, and unselfishly goes into aerial duels, the Croatian has been largely ineffective these past few weeks, and could do with a spell on the sidelines to recover ahead of a crucial stage in the season.

In theory, Mandzukic’s rugged style of play attracts defenders, and opens up space for his teammates – namely Ronaldo. However, if the first leg was anything to go by, Mandzukic struggled immensely to acclimate himself with the pace of the play and frankly isn’t suited to play against Ajax.

Dybala, by contrast, is a far more technical player and could interchange nicely with Ronaldo and Bernardeschi. As a result, it will be difficult for Ajax to cope with Juventus’ attack if there’s no consistent reference point throughout. In addition, the Argentine has proven time and time again that he’s ready for the biggest stage, scoring crucial goals in the Champions League against Barcelona, and Tottenham. Factor in Nicolas Tagliafico’s suspension, and things get harder for the Ajax rearguard playing away from home.

With all to play for in Turin, Allegri is turning to a familiar face in Dybala to help see his side through. While it hasn’t been his best season in bianconero, the quality is still there and it would be foolish to give up on him now. Against Ajax, he will be afforded a massive opportunity to make a statement; an opportunity Dybala cannot squander.

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